Safeguarding – December 10 2021

A Shoulder to Rest On: What Children and Young People Want in an Ombudsperson

Children and young people need “a mouth that advocates” for them, says one young man.

For this reason, they are actively participating in shaping the design of a global ombudsperson system for SOS Children’s Villages.

The role of an ombudsperson is to independently assist children, young people, whistleblowers, or other individuals to figure out what their option are to resolve their complaints and concerns through existing channels.

More than 250 children and young people from Benin, Sierra Leone, and Uruguay - where national ombudsperson systems are being developed - have been participating in consultations to inform and influence the ombudsperson approach.

The participants, aged between 10 and 24, talked not only about the qualities of an ideal ombudsperson but also the things that hinder or help them to raise safeguarding concerns.

One girl said she needs “a shoulder that I can rest on when I have a concern,” while a young man described how they want a “mouth that advocates for children and young persons”.

“The ombudsperson approach is intended to enhance the wellbeing and protection of children and young people. Thus their views, feelings, and experiences must be listened to and taken seriously,” says Claire O’Kane from Proteknôn, the child protection consultancy that provides technical support for the ombudsperson approach for SOS Children’s Villages.

The participants identified many important qualities and characteristics they would like to see in a child and youth-friendly ombudsperson, including:

  • Open-hearted, kind, and empathic.
  • Calm and intelligent with knowledge of children’s rights, safeguarding, and SOS Children’s Villages.
  • Ready to listen attentively with an open and non-judgemental mind.
  • Good observation skills to “see the state the child is in” (according to boys in Benin).
  • Respectful of confidentiality.
  • Willing to spend time with children and youth to build a trusting relationship.
  • Available to move quickly to solve their problems.

“The ombudsperson approach will only be accessible and effective if children and young people are able to speak up freely without fear of negative repercussions,” says Ms. O’Kane.

Fear and worries about being punished for reporting are some of the key barriers to raising safeguarding concerns. One young person referred to this as “discriminatory treatment”.

“You will be served raw food to cook before eating while others will be served cooked food after school, just because you have raised a concern against someone,” he said.

A 10-year-old girl spoke about the fear of “being treated differently. If something happens to you, keep it to yourself”.

Others are afraid that they won’t be believed. “It is very common that they don't believe us. Adults are believed," said a 16-year-old girl. 

Factors that encourage and enable children and young people to raise safeguarding concerns and complaints include trust in the process and trusted persons, the existence of reporting channels, and safeguarding focal points that are available to meet with them.

“I need to be self-confident and believe that my fears should not stop me from seeking support from the safeguarding office,” said another young person.

“If you have a relationship with someone you trust, it makes it easier to talk about your concerns,” was the opinion of a member of the International Youth Coalition.

The next step in developing the ombudsperson system on a national level will be to hold so-called validation workshops to share the findings from the consultations with participants. In later phases, it is planned for children and young people to also be involved in the recruitment process of ombudspersons and the monitoring of the quality and effectiveness of this approach.

Establishing a global independent ombudsperson system is one of eight prioritized actions in SOS Children’s Villages’ Safeguarding Action Plan to address the recommendations of the Independent Child Safeguarding review that was released in June 2021.  The ombudsperson system will complement the existing reporting and responding procedures for child safeguarding concerns, which SOS Children’s Villages has in place.